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Bishops Told Restoring Trust Will Require Drastic Change

By Edward Walsh


The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops were bluntly told Thursday that they bear primary responsibility for the sex abuse scandal that’s gripping their church and that regaining the trust of Catholics will require fundamental changes in their methods and style of leadership of the church.

In three extraordinary speeches opening a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the conference’s president and two prominent Catholic intellectuals described the 300 assembled bishops as arrogant and aloof and warned that the future of the church in the United States depended on their willingness to share authority with Catholic laypeople.

The bishops also listened intently, some with tears in their eyes, as four victims of sexual abuse by priests related their stories and asked the bishops to adopt the toughest possible “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual abuse of minors.

On Thursday afternoon and into the night the bishops debated that policy in closed meetings. A draft policy crafted by a special committee of the conference called for zero tolerance for any sexual abuse of minors by priests in the future, but left open the possibility of an exception for some priests guilty of only one case of abuse in the past.

That approach has been sharply criticized by many of the victims who are in Dallas this week and appeared to be a key point of dispute among the bishops themselves.

At a news conference this evening, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the president of the bishops conference, said that in the closed meeting “the bishops spoke very frankly about their anger, their fears, their disappointments, their hopes. We asked each other very candid, direct questions. I think we were quite honest with each other.”

While the bishops debated the policy in private, it was their own “accountability” for the scandal that was the dominating theme of Thursday’s opening public session. Gregory offered his “most profound apology” to the victims of abuse and their families on behalf of all the bishops.

“We are the ones,” Gregory repeated four times as he told the bishops that it was they who allowed abusive priests to remain in their ministries, failed to report their crimes to civil authorities, worried more about the effects of a scandal than preventing future abuse and sometimes responded to victims and their families as adversaries.

“The crisis, in truth, is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership as shepherds because of our failures in addressing the crime of sexual abuse of children and young people by priests and church personnel,” he said.

The toughest speech was delivered by Scott Appleby, a senior fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He told the bishops that their apologies wouldn’t be heard until they were willing to “name the protection of abusive priests for what it is -- a sin, born of the arrogance of power.”

Both Appleby and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, editor of the influential Catholic magazine Commonweal, also urged the bishops to begin sharing their power with Catholic laypeople and suggested that they pay less attention to the dictates of church authorities in Rome.